Residents packed the Senior Center ballroom March 22 for a Civility Roundtable discussion even better attended than the first, with 120 people signing in, said Ken Rosenberg, who organized the event along with several other members of the city's Human Relations Commission.
Residents eventually broke out into groups to talk, but the event began with a 40-minute "active demonstration of civility" with five speakers, including Jose Antonio Vargas, the former Mountain View High School student and Pulitzer-Prize winner who revealed his story of being an undocumented immigrant in The New York Times magazine nine months ago.
"This Vargas miscreant is a shining example of how vile, lawless and corrupt the Obama regime has become," said Rosenberg, as he read some quotes from the Voice online Town Square forum, where, like most newspaper websites, immigration is a hot topic. "This creep should have been on a plane headed for Manila the day he revealed his status."
The posts represented the low watermark in terms of language that organizers hoped to stay well above.
Rosenberg read another post about the event: "What is there to discuss? Don't we all know that violation of immigration laws is criminal and people who employ these illegal immigrants are criminals as well?"
"What we are not discussing tonight is whether I am a good person or not," said moderator Chris Block, CEO of American Leadership Forum, Silicon Valley.
Politicians at fault?
Dan Barich, former Congressional candidate and Tea Party member, was the most conservative at the roundtable. He said that it was not the undocumented immigrants who are at fault, but politicians who are unwilling to enforce immigration laws, "No offense to Jeff," he added, referring to Santa Clara District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who also sat at the roundtable.
Rosen said borders serve to keep a community's culture intact, but had to be balanced with what he described as a religious idea, that everyone was "created in God's image."
Rosen said his office did not regard illegal immigration as a criminal matter, unless someone who has been deported, especially a convict, returns illegally.
"If you are in the country illegally and without documentation, from the perspective of the District Attorney's office and the local police department, you are sort of off our radar screen." Deporting people "is not what we're interested in."
"If you are a tax-paying citizen, you go, gosh there's all these people coming here, they are going on assisted housing and welfare, their kids are in the school," Barich said. "There's something wrong with our system."
"I believe there are legal laws and moral laws," said Maria Marroquin, director of the Day Worker Center of Mountain View. The sentiment was later echoed by Vargas, who said he met a minister in Birmingham, Alabama who noted to Vargas, "You know how many laws I broke during the civil rights struggle?"
"We want to be able to give back to the country that has provided for us," Vargas said of himself and others who were brought to the country as children, but are not here legally. He called them the "Dream Act kids" — well-educated youths forced to work under-the-table jobs.
Oscar Garcia, CEO and president of the Chamber of Commerce, said he was the son of an undocumented woman. He said that it didn't make any sense that highly skilled young workers like Vargas are denied legal status when other immigrants can work in the U.S. with H1 visas.
Barich said unemployed U.S. citizens should get first priority. "There are a lot of people looking for jobs," he said.
Vargas said he didn't want to be "first in line." He just wants to be able to get in line at some point.
"When Mitt Romney says in Cedar Rapids that people like me should get in the back of the line, I would love to know where that line is," Vargas said.
Crime and language
At one point Barich made the claim that 30 percent of the country's prisoners were not here legally. District Attorney Rosen later addressed the issue in his breakout group, where he said the undocumented make up 10 percent of the county's jail and prison population while they make up the same proportion of the county's general population. He added that most victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants are other undocumented immigrants.
The assertion that undocumented immigrants don't make up a disproportionate part of the local prison population was eye-opening to one older man in the group. "I think that's a big deal," he said.
In other groups language barriers were a common topic. A group that surrounded Vargas compared their European parents and grandparents to today's immigrants from Mexico and Asia. "My mother would say 'I came here to be an American, not an Italian American,'" said one man who said he was a former police officer in San Francisco.
"Why can't you answer the question as to why these people don't want to learn English?" said a middle-aged man to some younger Latina women, one of whom responded by saying, "Why should you have to do that? This is Silicon Valley. We should embrace other cultures. We should be open-minded."
Keeping it civil
Before he attended the event, resident Konrad Sosnow wrote on the Voice's Town Square, "It makes me sick to see the way they (undocumented immigrants) thumb their noses at our laws. They think that they are better than U.S. citizens and don't need to have drivers' licenses, car insurance, or pay taxes."
Much energy was spent trying to convince people with such views that undocumented immigrants do want to do all the things law-abiding citizens do, but face many obstacles.
At the end of the event, Sosnow shook Vargas' hand, as did the former police officer who had hurled a litany of complaints toward Vargas. He wore a vest that said "America's freedom" and "the right to bear arms."
Rosenberg said the city had found the cure to the lack of civility in the country's political discussions: people talking to each other face to face.
Rosenberg said when he walked out of the first event, on corporate responsibility, "I wasn't sure we accomplished anything," he told the crowd as the event ended. But when he saw people from different backgrounds talking to each other, "I was convinced immediately that we accomplished something tonight," he said.